fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett science fiction book reviewsThe Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett

Old-time fans of Leigh Brackett’s most famous character, Eric John Stark, would have to exercise a great deal of patience after the first three Stark stories — “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” “Enchantress of Venus” and “Black Queen of Mars” — appeared in the pages of Planet Stories magazine, from 1949 – ’51. It would be a good 13 years before the author revisited her “Conan of the spaceways,” and then it was to only revise and expand the first and third tales to create the short novels The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman. Another decade would pass before Brackett touched on the character again (to be fair, Leigh was more of a screenwriter for film and television at this point in her career), but in 1974, the patience of her fans was finally rewarded with the release of The Ginger Star, the opening salvo of what has since become known as the SKAITH TRILOGY. Like the earlier Stark outings, the new book was a pleasing mixture of space opera and sword & sorcery-type fantasy; unlike the earlier works, the new book found Stark not on Mars or Venus, but rather, on a world many light-years from his home planet of Mercury. Fortunately for her readers, Brackett’s winning way with a robust adventure tale, fleshed out with beautifully descriptive prose, remained most definitely intact. As Scottish sci-fi critic David Pringle would later write of The Ginger Star, it is “colourful, well-turned escapism in an old-fashioned vein.”

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn The Ginger Star, Stark undertakes a mission on his own, with no support from the Galactic Union. His old mentor and savior, Simon Ashton, had disappeared on the planet Skaith while conducting a diplomatic mission. Skaith was a planet that had only recently been contacted. A world in decline, it consisted of various city-states whose populations — as Brackett describes their cultures, architecture, weaponry and the like — would seem to correspond to those of the Europe of Earth’s Middle Ages. Now, residents of the city-state of Irnan have made a request to the G.U. to emigrate from their old world, which request has caused the rulers of Skaith — the Lords Protector and their subservient Wandsmen — to shut down the G.U. consulate. Stark is immediately embroiled in trouble upon his arrival, and is ultimately forced to make a journey of many hundreds of miles to locate his old friend, falling in with any number of diverse folk en route. His goal: the mysterious locale known as the Citadel, far in the frozen north, where the Lords Protector supposedly reside. But to reach there, he must first pass through the hostile city of Izvand, the treacherous Darklands, the masked people of the Towers, the paganlike Outdwellers, the metalworkers of Thyra, and the gene-altered, mountain-dwelling Children of Skaith, before finally crossing the Plain of Worldheart and facing the legendary Northhounds. Fortunately for him, he acquires some allies during his lengthy quest: a band of Irnanese fighting for their freedom to emigrate, and Gerrith, a beautiful prophetess, with whom he enters into a sort of passionate affair…

Endlessly inventive, colorful and action packed, The Ginger Star is a bravura return for both Eric John Stark and his creator. Brackett, who had spent much of the preceding decade writing scripts for such films as Hatari!, El Dorado and Rio Lobo (all directed by Howard Hawks and all starring John Wayne), as well as the Robert Altman-directed neo-noir The Long Goodbye (and who would shortly commence work  on a little something called The Empire Strikes Back), demonstrates in her first novel in 10 years that she had lost not one iota of her authorial prowess. It is a triumphant return to form for the so-called “Queen of Space Opera.” Brackett adds many ingenious little touches to her story, such as the genetically modified Children of the Sea, who have elected to return to the oceans to live; the “pod masters,” who are in charge of bands of folks undergoing a radical form of group therapy; the “love-weed,” which induces instant randiness in its consumers; and the hag-like Sun Worshippers of Izvand, naked except for the black bags over their heads.

The author bracket(t)s her novel with two exciting set pieces: In the first, Stark battles one of those monstrous Children of the Sea in the creature’s watery domain; in the second, Stark goes up against Flay, the telepathic leader of the Northhounds. The Ginger Star is peopled with a large cast of characters, and there is simply no way for the reader to discern which of these characters will be sticking around and which will be summarily dispatched. George R.R. Martin, it would appear, was hardly the first fantasist to shockingly do away with seemingly major characters in his fictions!

Brackett employs archaic language on occasion (“We go there somewhiles to trade for tools and weapons”) to reinforce the notion of a medieval culture, and indeed, similar to the earlier Stark tales, if it were not for the planetary setting, the genetic sports and those telepathic canines, this could almost be a Conan tale as told by Robert E. Howard. As in People of the Talisman, one of the book’s central mysteries revolves around what lies beyond a high mountain pass; a pass that is guarded by an ancient city. In both instances, the answer is nothing that the reader could ever hope to imagine. The novel in question, I might add, is peripatetic if it is anything, and this reader was more than happy that — as is the case with many of the finest epic fantasies — a detailed map has been included in the book’s opening pages. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it certainly did help me envisage Stark’s winding journey.

The Ginger Star, it should be noted, does not wrap up neatly. By the novel’s end, Stark HAS achieved his primary objective of finding his mentor, Ashton, but many plot threads remain unresolved. The plight of the rebellious Irnanese, and the question of Skaith’s isolation from or welcoming of the Galactic Union, remain. In addition, by the book’s conclusion, Stark’s ally, the Irnanese fighting man Halk, as well as the seeress Gerrith, are in the clutches of the tyrannical Wandsmen. Guess I’m going to have to dive into book #2 now, The Hounds of Skaith, to see what happens next…

The Book of Skaith — (1974) Eric John Stark, Outlaw of Mars, travels beyond the solar system for exciting science fantasy adventures on the planet of Skaith, a lawless sphere at the edge of the known universe. Raised as a savage on the hostile planet of Mercury and honed into a fearless warrior in the low canals of the Red Planet, Stark is one of science fiction’s greatest adventurers and is Leigh Brackett’s most famous character. In The Ginger Star, Simon Ashton, Stark’s foster father, has been kidnapped by the Lords Protector, and only Stark can rescue him!

The Ginger StarSFF, fantasy literature, science fiction, horror, YA, and comic book and audiobook reviewsSFF, fantasy literature, science fiction, horror, YA, and comic book and audiobook reviews


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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